Julia O'Malley: Jens Hansen left imprint on city's fine dining

commentDecember 15, 2012 

Jens Nannestad remembers the moment "Big Jens" Hansen noticed him. It was more than 20 years ago. Nannestad was a kid working in the kitchen at the Crow's Nest. Big Jens, the charismatic, gravel-voiced head chef, didn't like the fact they had the same name. Months went by. Big Jens ignored him. Until one day he didn't.

"It was a busy place. I was cracking lobsters," Nannestad said. "He came back and took his hat off and showed me a better way to do it. That was what broke the ice. After that I was in the family."

Hansen, who shared Nannestad's Danish heritage, became one of his most important mentors. He may be one of the reasons Nannestad, who owns the bustling Southside Bistro and is a part owner of City Diner, made restaurants his life.

Go to any ambitious restaurant in Anchorage. You'll find a story like Nannestad's. The shadow of Hansen's chef toque runs long. Most anything you eat when you go out for a nice meal here has been prepared in a kitchen where someone once worked with Hansen or worked with someone else who worked with Hansen. People joke that there's just 2 degrees of separation between Jens' influence and any well-composed plate in the city.

And so this week, among restaurant people, wine lovers and food lovers, there are tears and toasts. Jens, granddaddy of local fine dining, died Dec. 7 after a long illness. He was 68.

A twinkly-eyed, big-hearted proponent of table manners (he ate hamburgers with a knife and fork), wine, wild parties, wilder costumes, giant bottles of champagne, perfectly cooked fish and Mardi Gras beads earned the old-fashioned way, Jens made an impression on anyone he met. I have heard far more stories about him this week than I can fit in to a column. About half are appropriate for print.


'His house'

Tuesday afternoon I found Van Hale, an owner of the Marx Bros Cafe, savoring the last swallow of a very nice French wine in the "bodega" bar of Jens' Restaurant. Hale and a tight-knit group of chefs, restaurateurs and foodies have been gathering Tuesdays for wine tastings for years. This Tuesday they were quieter than usual. The best palate among them was gone.

Jens' personality shaped the warm atmosphere in the restaurant, making it an unexpected refuge in a Midtown strip mall, Hale said. Jens welcomed people personally, helping women in from their cars in the rain and snow, umbrella in hand.

"This was his house," Hale told me, tears welling in the corners of his eyes.

In later years, when the once raucous evening bar scene slowed and Jens began spending less time in the kitchen, he inhabited a corner table from opening at 8 a.m. until the restaurant closed. He drank wine, read several articles at once about food and politics, wrote letters and made conversation. The tiled bar has always been a place where the wine is excellent and conversations among strangers come easily.

After 10 p.m., for many years, Jens would turn up the music, switching from languid jazz appropriate for his formal red-walled dining room to a set list that started with "Layla" and ended boozily, with patrons on their feet crowing along, and maybe banging a pan or two.

This week Jens' corner table holds flowers sent by customers from Anchorage and around the country. Annelise, his wife of 43 years and the business side of the operation, still plays "Layla" at 10. But the late-night revelry isn't the same.

Jens and Annelise had no children. The restaurant and the relationships built there across the bar and in front of the stove were his life's work, his friends said.

Jens' Restaurant -- pronounced YEN-zez -- opened in 1988 on the tail end of the economic crash of the '80s, offering diners an array of wine and French- and Danish-inspired cooking. Infused with new money from oil and tourists, Anchorage finally had the customer base it needed to move past hamburgers and fries and grow a small, bistro-style, fine-dining restaurant, Jens told the Daily News at the time.

"Everybody told us we were nuts when we opened," Annelise said last week.

Jens' food has always been very good but beyond that Jens and Annelise were very savvy, said JoAnn Asher, who started Sacks Cafe a few years before Jens' opened its doors. (One of the line cooks at Sacks, by the way, is a former longtime Jens employee, she said.) Jens cultivated the business at the bar, she said, which is a good practice. The restaurant didn't grow too fast.

"They started out lean," she said "He seemed to always know how to balance the economics."

Jens' loyal core customers haven't changed much since the early days. They've just aged. Some who used to dance on the bar are now members of AARP. They are still foodies -- restaurant people, society people, business people and politicians of all stripes -- all willing to pay good money for a piece of just-caught halibut cooked expertly in a hot pan so the center stays sublime and translucent. A taste for good food transcends social division. Jens knew this. He had regulars from many walks of life.

"He was always pretty proud that one time in the dining room he had the archbishop sitting next to Hell's Angels," Annelise said.


Every visit a compliment

Chef Al Levinsohn worked with Jens early in his career. Now he owns Kincaid Grill and Bridge Seafood and is a partner in City Diner. He thinks of Jens every time he's getting ready for a big event, he said.

"I still have that voice in my head saying, 'What would Jens think'?" he said.

Levinsohn met his wife at Jens' bar, he said. It was the '90s. Levinsohn had recently divorced. He was having a drink. She was having a drink.

"(Jens) leaned over and tapped me on the shoulder, and he said, 'This is going to be your next wife,'" he said.

Jens married them, Levinsohn said. For the occasion he wore a pink caftan. Annelise told me that she made him wear a suit to that wedding but he slipped into the caftan later, against her advice. She had him cremated in it, she said.

Brett Knipmeyer, chef and owner of Kinley's Restaurant and Bar, worked at Jens' for seven years before starting his Midtown restaurant.

One of Jens' sayings, "When it's busy, we're friendly, and when it's slow, we make friends," often comes to mind, he said. The restaurant business is all about relationships and making customers feel well taken care of, Knipmeyer said.

"Working at Jens' restaurant really gave me a great insight on the town, on what the town eats and what the town wants," he said.

Anchorage loves calamari. A version on the Kinley's menu, pan fried to just tender, is an homage Jens' very popular dish. (Knipmeyer estimates he cooked 11,000 orders of it while employed there.) Jens came in his restaurant occasionally, Knipmeyer said. He always ordered the duck confit and glass of wine from the Rhone region. Every visit was a compliment, he said.

  How Jens liked it

Jens has not been cooking for many years, relying instead on the skills of Nancy Alip, his 31-year-old chef de cuisine. Since his death, Alip told me, she's thought a lot about why he chose her to be his successor, trusting her to cook up to his standards.

"He just saw something in me I barely saw myself," she said.

When he made her head chef, she was 25 and six months pregnant. He was 25 when he first took charge of a kitchen, he told her. She would be just fine.

"I wouldn't say he gave compliments very freely," she said, "But when you did a good job, you knew he meant it."

If she could cook him just one more meal, it would be the pepper steak, his favorite item on his own menu. It would be medium rare, she said, with a pan sauce.

"The plate had to be very, very hot," she said. "So hot you could barely touch it."

Like with most things, he was very particular about it, she said. But she learned over time how to please him. And in that way, she said, he made her better.

Jens' Restaurant has been open every day since his passing and will continue on, with a customary break in January, Annelise said. A memorial celebration for Jens will be held Jan. 2 at the Captain Cook Hotel.


Julia O'Malley writes a regular column. Read her blog at adn.com/jomalley, find her on Facebook or get her Twitter updates at www.twitter.com/adn_jomalley.



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